VATICAN CITY – Some 1.5 million pilgrims flooded Rome on Sunday to watch Pope John Paul II move a step closer to sainthood in one of the largest Vatican Masses in history, an outpouring of adoration for a beloved and historic figure after years marred by church scandal.

The turnout for the beatification far exceeded even the most optimistic expectation of 1 million people, the number Rome city officials predicted. For Catholics filling St. Peter’s Square and its surrounding streets, and for those watching around the world the beatification was a welcome hearkening back to the days when the pope was almost universally beloved.

“He was like a king to us, like a father,” said a weeping Marynka Ulaszewska, 28, of Ciechocinek, Poland. “I hope these emotions will remain with us for a long time,” she said.

Pope Benedict XVI praised John Paul for turning back the seemingly “irreversible” tide of communism with faith, courage and “the strength of a titan, a strength which came to him from God.”

John Paul is universally credited with helping bring down communism in his native Poland with support for the Solidarity labor movement, accelerating the fall of the Iron Curtain.

“He rightly reclaimed for Christianity that impulse of hope which had in some sense faltered before Marxism and the ideology of progress,” Benedict said. “He restored to Christianity its true face as a religion of hope.”

John Paul’s beatification, the fastest in modern times, has, however, triggered a new wave of anger from sex-abuse victims because much of the criminality occurred during his 27-year watch. Critics also say John Paul’s legacy is clouded by evidence of a dwindling faith: empty churches in Europe, too few priests in North and South America, priests who violate their celibacy requirement in places like Africa and a general decline of Catholicism in former Christian strongholds.

John Paul’s defenders argue that an entire generation of new priests owe their vocations to John Paul, and that millions of lay Catholics found their faith during the World Youth Days, which were a hallmark of his papacy.

Vatican officials have insisted that the saint-making process isn’t a judgment of how John Paul administered the church but rather whether he lived a life of Christian virtue.

Benedict put John Paul on the fast track for possible sainthood when he dispensed with the traditional five-year waiting period and allowed the beatification process to begin weeks after his April 2, 2005, death. Benedict was responding to chants of “Santo Subito!” or “Sainthood Immediately,” which erupted during John Paul’s funeral.

Beatification is the last major milestone before a candidate is declared a saint. John Paul needs another miracle attributed to his intercession before he can be canonized.

Pilgrims from Mexico to Mali repeated the procession after the Mass on Sunday, for hours filing past the wooden coffin that had been raised from the grottoes underneath St. Peter’s Basilica to the church’s center aisle, where it was surrounded by four Swiss Guards standing at attention.

Already, Vatican officials have said that reports of inexplicable cures were pouring in, suggesting it is only a matter of time before John Paul is declared a saint, or even a doctor of the church — an even greater honor.